4 Atlanta Falcons

Can a season end before it's even begun? The best plan for these birds may be to get through this year and start fresh in '08
September 02, 2007

WHAT'S NEW?

> Gee, hardlyanything at all. Iconic, pillar-of-the-franchise quarterback Michael Vick isfacing prison time and a lengthy suspension from the NFL in one of the ugliestscandals in league history. He won't be playing in the NFL for a very longtime. Coach Bobby Petrino is a rookie straight out of Louisville (albeit withthree years' experience as an NFL assistant), and his predecessor was cannedafter three seasons. Three-time Pro Bowl running back Warrick Dunn underwentback surgery right before training camp, and the offense was turned over toJoey Harrington, whom much of the league has consigned to the slag heap offirst-round quarterback busts, five years after the Lions selected him out ofOregon with the third overall pick in 2002. Other than that, things have beenquiet in Atlanta.

WHERE THEY'REHEADED

> Straight tothe bottom? Maybe not. Oddly, Petrino might be the perfect coach to take overthis listing ship. He is a no-nonsense X's and O's football wonk who doesn'tget caught up in any of the extracurriculars that surround the job. "Iplayed for Tony Dungy," says Dunn, a former Buccaneer. "He was not ascreamer, but he was able to coach you and also have a relationship with you.Bobby coaches you too, but he's not joking around or interacting with theplayers. You can have a conversation with Bobby, but he's not going to talkyour ear off."

It can be arguedthat this is the perfect management style for a team that will play in one ofthe longest shadows imaginable. But on the eve of training camp Petrinogathered the Falcons and openly addressed the Vick issue. According to veteranlinebacker Keith Brooking, Petrino said, "There are things going on thatare out of our hands. Mike's situation is unclear, but we can't do anythingabout that. And our mission is unchanged." Brooking adds, "CoachPetrino is right. This is my 10th year in the league, and it truly is not onlya game-to-game league, but a day-to-day league. You have to have that tunnelvision, regardless of what is going on, because the teams you're playing do notcare [about your issues]."

Petrino's abilityto steer the Falcons through the Vick crisis is his most public challenge. Butit is just as crucial that he turn Harrington into a useful NFL quarterback torun the offense that Petrino has been building for more than two decades in thegame.

NFL fans arefamiliar with Harrington's story: He started 55 games in four years withDetroit and threw two more interceptions than touchdowns; the Lions won just19 games in that span. Last year he went to Miami as Daunte Culpepper'sbackup and ended up starting 11 games, including four straight victoriesin November.

"I feelbetter than I have in six years," Harrington said during training camp."While the Detroit experience was awful, and I wouldn't wish it on anybody,I learned a ton from it. I looked at last year as the chance to sling the ballaround. I had lost myself as a player, and now I've gotten a lot of myconfidence back."

When Petrino wasasked in training camp if he had spent time reconstructing Harrington's psyche,he said, "I thought I might have to. But I haven't. And if you look at hisMiami tapes, he did a lot of good things."

Betting onHarrington remains a leap of faith until he proves himself. The surroundingcast is respectable. The right side of the offensive line, with tackle ToddWeiner and guard Kynan Forney, is as good as any in football. Jerious Norwoodaveraged 6.4 yards per carry as a rookie, and if Dunn is healthy, they form asolid pair. Joe Horn comes over from New Orleans to stabilize the receivingcorps, provided he has gas left in the tank at age 35.

Petrino broughtin Mike Zimmer from the Cowboys to upgrade an inconsistent defense that fivetimes held opponents to 10 points or fewer but four other times surrendered 30or more. Zimmer is attempting to transform the Falcons' D into a conservativefirst- and second-down unit that puts itself in position to pressure thequarterback on third-and-long. "The new defensive staff has this philosophywhere you have to earn the right to rush the quarterback on third down,"says veteran strong safety Lawyer Milloy. "And they're a lot morein-your-face than the old staff."

There aresignificant questions on the defensive side: Will John Abraham give the Falconsmore than six healthy games? Will veteran cornerback Lewis Sanders, signed inthe off-season from Houston, hold down the side opposite DeAngelo Hall, whoseldom gets tested?

But those seemlike minor matters on team fighting larger turmoil. "Losing Mike doesn'tmake us a better team," says Milloy. "But are we going to spend theyear using that as an excuse?"

The good news isthat expectations are so low, Petrino's Falcons will almost surely exceedthem.

2007 SCHEDULE

(M) Monday (T)Thursday

SEPTEMBER

9 atMinnesota

16 atJacksonville

23 CAROLINA

30 HOUSTON

OCTOBER

7 atTennessee

15 N.Y. GIANTS(M)

21 at NewOrleans

28 Bye

NOVEMBER

4 SANFRANCISCO

11 atCarolina

18 TAMPA BAY

22 INDIANAPOLIS(T)

DECEMBER

2 at St.Louis

10 NEW ORLEANS(M)

16 at TampaBay

23 at Arizona

30 SEATTLE

SCHEDULESTRENGTH

NFL rank ...T27

Opponents' 2006winning percentage ... .473

Games againstplayoff teams ... 5

ENEMY LINES

AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE FALCONS

> There'spotential here for a big-time disaster. They could be really bad. . . . Look,we all know the history with college coaches coming into the league. BobbyPetrino is supposed to be a pretty sharp guy, but this is just a really hardthing to do, especially in this situation. . . . Joey Harrington can't get itdone. Look at his record. And they've got nothing behind him. . . . Of course,Alge Crumpler is a stud at tight end. On the other side DeAngelo Hall and KeithBrooking are great players, period. John Abraham is supposed to be a greatplayer, but he's basically a nickel pass rusher who's full of himself and getshurt a lot. . . . This looks like a team that needs everything to break justright in order to go 5-11. And they'll probably be worse than that.

THE KING 500

Kynan Forney

> GUARD

368

Late in camp, the6' 3", 307-pound Forney shed his sweat-drenched uniform and, eager to gethome, proclaimed, "My legs are heading south for I-85." It's best hekeep those legs fresh, because the O-line must quickly assimilate coach BobbyPetrino's audible-rich offense. "When we get it down," Forney says,"defenses won't be able to tee off on us, because we changeeverything."

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PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP

WITH 2006STATISTICS

COACH BOBBYPETRINO (0-0 in NFL), first season with Falcons

NEW ACQUISITION(R) Rookie (college statistics)

OFFENSE

JOE HORN (NEWACQUISITION)

POS WR

REC 37

YARDS 679

TD 4

WARRICK DUNN

POS RB

ATT 286

YARDS 1,140

AVG 4.0

REC 22

YARDS 170

AVG 7.7

TD 5

JOEY HARRINGTON(NEW ACQUISITION)

POS QB

ATT 388

COMP 223

PCT 57.5

YARDS 2,236

TD 12

INT 15

RATING 68.2

OVIE MUGHELLI(NEW ACQUISITION)

POS FB

ATT 12

YARDS 50

AVG 4.2

REC 21

YARDS 182

AVG 8.7

TD 2

MICHAELJENKINS

POS WR

REC 39

YARDS 436

TD 7

TODD WEINER

POS RT

HT 6'4"

WT 297

G 16

KYNAN FORNEY

POS RG

HT 6'3"

WT 307

G 7

TODD MCCLURE

POS C

HT 6'1"

WT 286

G 16

JUSTIN BLALOCK(R)(NEW ACQUISITION)

POS LG

HT 6'4"

WT 329

G 13

WAYNE GANDY

POS LT

HT 6'5"

WT 308

G 16

ALGE CRUMPLER

POS TE

REC 56

YARDS 780

TD 8

BILLY CUNDIFF(NEW ACQUISITION)

POS K

FG 0-1

POINTS 0

DEFENSE

MICHAEL BOLEY

POS WLB

TACKLES 85

SACKS 3

INT 2

JAMAALANDERSON(R) (NEW ACQUISITION)

POS LE

TACKLES 65

SACKS 13 1/2

ROD COLEMAN

POS LT

TACKLES 25

SACKS 6

GRADY JACKSON

POS RT

TACKLES 33

SACKS 0

JOHN ABRAHAM

POS RE

TACKLES 18

SACKS 4

DEMORRIOWILLIAMS

POS SLB

TACKLES 90

SACKS 1

INT 1

DEANGELO HALL

POS CB

TACKLES 58

INT 4

CHRIS CROCKER

POS FS

TACKLES 50

SACKS 1

INT 1

KEITHBROOKING

POS MLB

TACKLES 136

SACKS 2 1/2

INT 0

LAWYER MILLOY

POS SS

TACKLES 98

SACKS 2

INT 0

LEWIS SANDERS(NEW ACQUISITION)

POS CB

TACKLES 42

INT 0

MICHAELKOENEN

POS P

PUNTS 76

AVG 42.1

> 2006 RECORD7-9 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 1/32/12 DEFENSE 9/29/22

PHOTODALE ZANINE/US PRESSWIRE GRASPING In Vick's absence it falls to Milloy (36) and the D to keep theFalcons competitive. PHOTODAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)